One thing our city lacks…is public spaces that are used. They’re very few and far between and public spaces are important. Public spaces are where people who otherwise don’t know each other get together–they congregate; they disseminate ideas; shit moves forward.

– Omar Afra, Free Press Houston weekly podcast #38, April 23, 2012

We are not lacking in millionaire-donated hospital pavilions and art museums, but in those gestures that would help bring the city itself together as a work of art.

– Phillip Lopate, “Pursuing the Unicorn: Public Space in Houston,” Cite magazine, Winter 1984

A recent episode of the FPH podcast reminded me that I wanted to write a summary of Phillip Lopate’s seminal 1984 article from Cite magazine. Lopate opens with words of praise for our fine metropolis, but quickly moves on to say “Nevertheless, Houston…has an almost sensational lack of convivial public space… those in-between spaces, such as squares, fountains, monuments, parks and promenades… where people congregate on their own for the sheer pleasure of being part of a mass.”

Lopate lists many excuses people offer for “deficiencies of urban design in Houston,” such as “the weather; the lack of zoning; the too-rapid boom in population,” etc., but he debunks each one. Cities in South America are even hotter than Houston for longer portions of the year, yet they “abound in outdoor plazas.” He notes that our climate is actually fantastic for eight months out of the year, which is comparable to many far more pedestrian-friendly cities like New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans, but Houston is designed for the four worst months rather than the eight great months. “It seems paranoid,” Lopate writes, “to plan only for the difficult few months.”

He laments the razing of movie theaters and street-level businesses downtown in the 1960s, and notes that the downtown tunnel system has “leeched an entire economy from ground level and taken much of the street life and energy of downtown with them.”

“Houston’s streets give off the blunt message: Don’t’ bother walking. It’s not worth it. Take the car.”

And he’s right—how many times have you seen a person walking on the shoulder of Highway 6 or even outside-the-loop Westheimer and thought, “What the heck is this person thinking???” Lopate offers North and South Boulevards near Rice University as attractive examples of what Houston streets could conceivably look like. (Shade is essential.)

But why all this talk about streets and sidewalks and walking in an article about public space? Because “[t]he most basic unit of public space is the street.” Both Omar and Lopate note that while Houston does indeed have some great public spaces (Market Square, Tranquility Park, Memorial Park, Hermann Park/Miller Outdoor/zoo, a host of smaller neighborhood parks, and now even Discovery Green) they are underutilized. This is because, Lopate notes, “great plazas and squares do not bloom in a void; they are fed by the rich pedestrian life of the neighborhood streets around them.”

Think of Mexico City’s Zocolo, or Manhattan’s Washington Square Park, or San Francisco’s Dolores Park. These are destinations, even for locals from other parts of those cities, but the whole neighborhood becomes the destination–not just the square but the surrounding blocks, as well. Why haven’t local real estate developers caught on to this?

The way you traverse the space between your home and the park makes for an entirely different experience! There is a huge difference between walking from your front door to your car (i.e. your private space) and driving to a parking lot at Hermann Park and then walking to a patch of shade beneath a tree, on the one hand, and arriving there by foot or even by bicycle or bus or train, on the other hand. We think our cars give us freedom, but we’re so much freer to window shop or stop at cafes or daydream or run into acquaintances when we’re on foot–even riding a train, you can get off one stop early to stop by your favorite deli and then walk the rest of the way–there’s just so many more possibilities. When you drive, you are in private space until you arrive at your destination. If you get there by foot or bike or bus or train, you are in the public sphere from the moment you step out your door–and there’s so much more chance for randomness and magic in the public sphere.

Cars and freeways create some ironic tension, of course. “[I]f ever increasing density and utilization are marks of successful public space,” Lopate notes, “then our highways are a hit.” We may be surrounded by thousands of people on the freeways, but we’re still all alone in our sad little cars.

Lopate’s article is over 27 years old, so of course parts of it no longer apply, but it’s remarkable how much of it holds up. The highlight of the article, for me, is when he discusses the areas surrounding the sports stadiums of that era–the Astrodome and the Summit (later renamed the Compaq Center and now home to Lakewood Church). Here, again, he emphasizes that keyed-up fans have no choice but to track down their cars in the immense void of the parking lot and drive home, rather than gather in neighborhood bars and restaurants or share a train ride home with a gaggle of rowdy fans, i.e. fellow citizens, i.e. neighbors, i.e. potential friends.

Interestingly, one of Lopate’s (and my) favorite public spaces is Bell Park, which is right across the street from the space that we were discussing on the podcast–Grand Prize Bar. I suggest you print Lopate’s article out from the Cite magazine archive (works best on 11” x 17” paper) and walk down to Bell Park and read it for yourself. It may be 27 years old but it might still give you a new perspective on our city as well as ideas for urban design-oriented solutions.

The full article can be found here:

Pursuing the Unicorn: Public Space in Houston (Cite 8, Winter 1984)
by Phillip Lopate

And Cite editor Raj Mankad’s related article:

Where’s the Revolution? The Changing Landscape of Free Speech in Houston (Cite 80, Winter 2009)
by Raj Mankad